Over the years I’ve learned to be sceptical of the publicity blurbs adorning the covers of new paperback books. Usually, these assure potential buyers that the book in question is an absolute page-turner that you just can’t put down. However, the blurb on the cover of The Wine-Dark Sea, a collection of short stories by the late writer Robert Aickman, which was originally published in 1988 and which appeared in a new edition last year courtesy of Faber & Faber, is bang on the money.
It contains a comment by Neil Gaiman, no less, who says of the author: “Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was. All I know is that he did it beautifully.”
That’s as good a description as any of the feeling I get when reading Aickman. You’re aware that he’s going to perform a trick involving some literary sleight-of-hand. You don’t know what the trick’s going to be, or when he’s going to do it; and afterwards, you’re not even sure if the trick has been performed, or what the point of it was. Then you mull it over. And finally, most of the time, you decide: Wow! That was impressive!
I have, though, added ‘most of the time’ as a disclaimer to that previous sentence. Because, very occasionally, my reaction to an Aickman story has been different: What a load of cobblers!
I first came across Aickman’s work in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when his stories cropped up in horror anthologies such as The Far Reaches of Fear (1976), New Terrors (1980) and Dark Forces (1980). Although they rubbed shoulders with some grisly items in those collections, Aickman’s stories didn’t fit comfortably with the ‘horror’ label. And the claim that some people made about him, that he was actually a ‘ghost’ story writer in the mould of M.R. James, didn’t convince either. Aickman liked to describe his stories as ‘strange’ ones and ‘strange’ is probably the adjective I’d attach to them too.
It wasn’t just his fiction that seemed out-of-place. Aickman himself seemed out-of-place in post-war Britain, being a man of old-fashioned views and erudite – some would say ‘elitist’ – tastes. He was a conservationist who co-founded the Inland Waterways Association and battled to prevent Britain’s no-longer-in-commercial-use canal system from being filled in; a political conservative; and a lover of ballet, opera, classical music and highbrow theatre. I imagine that by the 1970s, when the UK’s political and cultural landscape was one of Labour governments and frequent industrial action by trade unions, of glam rock and bubble-gum pop music, of cheap-and-cheerful downmarket TV shows like Crossroads and On the Buses, he was not a particularly happy bunny. Inevitably, this sense of alienation appears in his fiction. His stories feature a lot of discontented middle-aged men (or women) who are set in their ways and don’t do a good job coping with a changing, modern world that seems diametrically opposed to their ways.
I found much of Aickman’s work baffling when, as a teenager, I first encountered it; although I was impressed by his contribution to New Terrors, a 55-page story called The Stains. It tells the tale of Stephen, a widowed civil servant, who meets a mysterious, wild-seeming, almost dryad-like girl called Nell whilst rambling on some remote moors. He becomes infatuated with Nell, with the result that he takes early retirement from his job, abandons his ties with the ‘civilised’ world and attempts to live with her in an empty, tumbledown house on the moors. But the story is no New Age male fantasy. Aickman steers it in a darker direction. Nell is an embodiment of the natural world and, obsessed with her, Stephen succumbs to his natural instincts – but nature soon intrudes in a more grotesque way. As their romance progresses, Stephen notices weird moulds, fungi and lichen spreading across the walls and furniture around him. There are even hints that these agents of decay have manifested themselves on his flesh too.
The Stains is regarded as one of Aickman’s most autobiographical stories. Many people see in Stephen’s unpleasantly doomed relationship with Nell a metaphor for Aickman’s love affair with the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard. After being involved with him, and then with Laurie Lee and Arthur Koestler, Howard married Kingsley Amis in 1965. Aickman, whose obsession with Howard was described by one friend as a ‘mental aberration’, must have found the thought that she’d chosen the increasingly boorish Amis over him hard to stomach. And incidentally, like a good number of Aickman’s stories, The Stains shows that he wasn’t afraid to flavour his work – no matter how fuddy-duddy the characters – with a strong dose of eroticism.
My teenage self was sufficiently curious to seek out more of Aickman’s work and I located two collections of his short stories, Dark Entries (1964) and Cold Hand in Mine (1975). Predictably, some of those stories bewildered me, and a few irritated me; but several, like The Stains, have haunted me ever since. (Incidentally, I often wonder if, long before he became the front-man for the goth-rock band Bauhaus, a young Peter Murphy read the earlier book; and was so impressed by it that he pinched its title for the Bauhaus song Dark Entries, which was released as a single in 1980.)
One story I remember well is The Swords, in which a young travelling salesman goes to bed with a strangely blank woman whom he’s encountered at a seedy carnival sideshow. In bed, inevitably, he discovers that she isn’t what she seems. Also memorable is The Hospice, a Kafka-esque tale of a motorist getting lost at night and asking for shelter at the institution of the title. He isn’t inside the hospice for long before he notices odd things about how the inmates are cared for — most disturbingly, in the dining room, he sees that one patient is shackled to the floor.
And in Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, Aickman tackles one of the commonest tropes in horror fiction in one of its most traditional settings. It purports to be a series of diary entries written by a young woman in 1815 who’s accompanying her parents on a dull-sounding tour of central Europe. She becomes excited, though, when she discovers that they’re in the same neighbourhood as her secret hero, Lord Byron, who lives there ‘in riot and wickedness’. And she soon encounters her own personal Lord Bryon in the form of a mysterious gentleman attending a local contessa’s party. His ‘skin is somewhat pallid’, his nose is ‘aquiline and commanding’ and, most suspiciously of all, his mouth is ‘scarlet’. You can guess where this is heading.
Aickman’s approach to telling creepy stories was subtle, mannered and leisurely – often, his stories needed a lot of build-up before they reached their denouements. At the start of the 1980s this approach seemed anachronistic. British literary horror had indeed been subtle, mannered and leisurely once, back in the days of M.R. James and E.F. Benson; but in the mid-1970s it’d experienced a punk-rock moment when James Herbert unleashed a slew of bestselling horror novels like The Rats and The Fog that were unapologetically in your face with gore, violence and grottiness. And a little later, in the 1980s, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series would pioneer a style of horror-writing that was in equal parts perverse, visionary and spectacularly gruesome.
So when I read in a newspaper in 1981 that Aickman had died of cancer – which, in his typically obstinate way, he’d refused to have any conventional medical treatment for, preferring instead to rely on dubious ‘homeopathic’ cures – I assumed, sadly, that his work would soon be out of fashion, out of print and out of readers’ memories.
Years later, I stumbled across a copy of a posthumously-published collection by him called The Unsettled Dust (1990). It contained the odd story that annoyed me, but generally I greatly enjoyed it. By now I knew what to expect from Aickman and was mature enough to appreciate his elegant prose, his subtle build-up of suspense, his oddball but endearingly-drawn characters and his moments of utter strangeness. Admittedly, in many cases, I wasn’t sure what happened at the stories’ ends; and even after thinking about them carefully, I still wasn’t sure. But what the hell? With Aickman, the pleasure was in getting there.
I particularly liked the title story, in which an official stays at a stately home whilst negotiating the transfer of the house’s running from the hands of its aristocratic inhabitants into the hands of the National Trust. He discovers a peculiar room deep inside the house where, like in a giant snow globe, huge patches of dust are continually and spectrally floating through the air. This illustrates another of Aickman’s talents, being able to convincingly weave into his stories scenes and incidents that are totally outlandish. So sober is the tone of everything else that’s going on that you readily accept these mad bits as part of the narrative.
Nonetheless, it seemed appropriate that I’d found The Unsettled Dust in a rack of second-hand books of a corner of a small antiques shop in a village in rural County Suffolk – an obscure place to find an obscure book by an obscure writer.
But, happily, I was wrong. Recent years have seen a revival of interest in Robert Aickman, which reached a peak in 2014 – the centenary of his year of birth – when Faber & Faber republished The Wine-Dark Sea, Dark Entries, Cold Hand in Mind and The Unsettled Dust. His work has been championed by Neil Gaiman; by Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith of The League of Gentlemen; and by Dame Edna Everage himself (or herself), Barry Humphries, who in addition to being a comedian and actor is a committed bibliophile with a library of 25,000 books. And the Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph have all printed articles about him lately.
I’ve just finished reading the stories contained in The Wine-Dark Sea and it’s possibly my favourite Aickman collection yet. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, though – this being Aickman, there has to be at least one story that gets on my wick. In this case the offender is Growing Boys, a satiric fantasy about a woman who has to deal with two sons growing at a supernatural rate, to supernatural sizes, and becoming criminal psychopaths. An ineffectual police force, an ineffectual school system and an ineffectual father (who’s more interested in running for parliament as a Liberal Party candidate) do nothing to stop them. Aickman seemingly uses the story to bemoan the delinquency of the younger generation and the inadequacy of Britain’s post-war institutions. At the same time, he depicts another character, a crusty old uncle with a zeal for using guns and artillery, with apparent approval. It’s reactionary but, much worse, it isn’t funny.
Another pair of stories in The Wine-Dark Sea show Aickman taking two more of his modern-day bugbears and channelling his indignation at them into macabre stories — but much more successfully than he does with Growing Boys. Never Visit Venice lays into the modern phenomenon of mass tourism. Its hero is so disappointed in how the historic Italian city has been degraded by sightseers that, unwisely, he ends up taking a ride in an infernal gondola that seems to have been punted out through the gates of hell.
Your Tiny Hand is Frozen, meanwhile, is about an unsociable man who, while minding an apartment for a friend, gets addicted to using the apartment’s telephone. Through it, he communicates with a strange woman who may or may not really exist. Telephones were becoming a common feature of British households at the time the story was written, presumably to Aickman’s discomfort. Perhaps it’s just as well that he didn’t live to see the situation today, when mobiles and smart-phones have practically taken over the world.
However, for me, the best story in The Wine-Dark Sea is The Inner Room, which is about a haunted doll’s house. Now haunted doll’s houses have appeared in many scary stories over the years, most famously in one written by M.R. James called – surprise! – The Haunted Doll’s House. But Aickman infuses The Inner Room with a wry, sad humour. Its climax, on the other hand, is unexpectedly and phantasmagorically weird and reminds me a little of the fiction of Angela Carter.
Incidentally, so in vogue is Aickman now that there’s a Facebook page devoted to him at https://www.facebook.com/weareforthedark. And somebody has even set up a twitter account that allegedly offers tweets from ‘the dead Robert Aickman’ — you’ll find this at https://twitter.com/robertaickman. Robert Aickman with a presence on social media? I’m sure he would have loved that. Not.